The last few years have been very good for techno. It never really went away but it was quiet for a long time, a steady background hum in the general scheme of electronic music. Other genres came and went according to the whims of fashion — drum & bass and trance and progressive and electro and two-step — but behind the scenes and under the surface techno remained very much a going concern.
Much as how the blues informs the heart of jazz, and punk defines the nature of rock, techno symbolizes the purest and most unadorned expression of electronic music. Here we see the music as it was conceived, and understand how it can still shock and surprise after all these years: this is the platonic ideal of sound divorced from concrete reality. This is music conceived in an artificial context, intended not to synthesize any known sound but to create something inarguably new and appealingly alien. It’s the idea of music unfettered by the limitations of the strictly possible — composition as science-fiction.
No artist enjoys such a central position in the modern techno universe as Richie Hawtin. Before Kompakt, before Ghostly, Hawtin was the superstar of the scene, a unique position he has not relinquished in almost a decade. Both under his own name and under the enigmatic nom de guerre Plastikman, Hawtin has remained one of the most consistent and prolific presences in the world of electronic music. Returning to his signature DE9 series, Hawtin has not only produced one of the most singularly fascinating albums of the year, but taken the very concept of a mixed CD into unprecedented territory. However, the enormous complexity of the accomplishment is such that it may be years before Hawtin’s contributions can be assimilated by the mainstream of DJ culture.
As technology continues to expand into the mental space of the musician at a rate which would have been unfathomable just ten years ago, the very act of DJing continues to be transformed. There is some question in my mind whether or not Transistions can even be considered a DJ mix anymore, because there is simply no way that the effects herein could be achieved spontaneously. This is something new, something that shares as much with cut-and-paste collages like DJ Shadow’s Entroducing… and the Avalanches’ Since I Left You as with any conventional DJ mix.
But it must also be said that while Transitions is a work of unprecedented craftsmanship, as it is designed it is also intricate to the point of absurdity. As Hawtin explains in the liner notes, the mix was originally conceived not as an 79-minute-long CD but a 96-minute-long DVD. The “master” mix, included on the DVD which accompanies the CD, is designed to be heard in a precisely-calibrated 5.1 Dolby Digital stereo environment. Hawtin elaborates: “…the exploration of the transition is not only limited to the X & Y (time & amplitude) planes of sound, but also in the Z plane (depth) of space, opening up the mix for the first time into a fully encompassing surround sound environment.” The featurette included on the DVD includes a visit to the studio where Hawtin laid down the final mix for the surround sound version — it is impressively complex.
What all of this means, however, is that you probably don’t have a stereo system that can fully appreciate the multiple layers of nuance involved in Transitions. I have a pretty nice system, and I’ll admit that I just couldn’t get a lot of stereo effects, while listening to the DVD, that weren’t already present on the CD. The DVD version of the mix is an audiophile’s wet dream, but most people will probably never hear the mix in the pristine environment for which it was intended. There is something unabashedly futile in that.
But the genius of Transitions lies in the way in which the accumulation of tiny microscopic detail adds up to a massively impressive whole that can be readily appreciated regardless of your stereo’s limitations. The mix is not composed of individual songs or tracks. Instead, Hawtin has isolated sections of almost a hundred individual tracks — sections that range from sampled measures in their entirety to isolated basslines or even single notes. The effect, as you can imagine, is such that any notion of individually demarcated tracks disappears. Everything on the disc blends and shuffles together, and the result is less a DJ mix — with the customary distinctive highs, lows and peaks — but a wholly novel 96-minute composition.
However, despite allusions to modernist utility and technological precision, the mix never looses sight of the sensual possibilities of the unyielding beat. From almost the very first moment until the end, the beat carries the mix forward, a very real and constant reminder of the sexual implications of any steady, pulsating rhythm. Just in case you forgot, however, Hawtin throws in an obvious sample of the Detroit Grand Pubahs’ lascivious “Dr. Bootygrabber” as a reminder that techno is more than just the sum of its ascetic pretenses. There’s a lot of emotion here, from the sexual to the serene, and the end result is something just this side of numinous.
The first DE9 mix, 1999’s Decks, EFX & 909, was a comparatively simple affair, featuring Hawtin mixing records with the aid of a 909 rhythm machine and limited effects boxes. It was still recognizably a DJ mix, but there were the beginnings of something more expansive. 2001’s Closer to the Edit was the first hint of something truly radical, a mix composed of dozens of tiny micro-samples woven together to create an intricate whole. Transitions obviates the boundaries of individual tracks entirely, dismantling the very notion of DJ mixing as it exists in favor of something far more organic and indivisible. I can’t say that I believe too many DJs will follow Hawtin’s lead — this is simply too involved and demanding a trick to interest many. But the outer limits of today’s boundaries will become the settled frontiers of tomorrow. Hawtin continues to stretch the boundaries, redefining the very concept of music to suit his whims.